Transatlantic German Studies: Introduction

Daniel Carranza, Eva Tanita Kraaz and Kai Sina

Tracking the filiations between American and German literatures has been an object of close study by Anglo-American as well as German critics for quite some time: from René Wellek’s earliest essays on topics such as “Emerson and German Philosophy” (1943) or “Carlyle and German Romanticism” (1929) to Kurt Müller-Vollmer’s significant accounts of how American transcendentalists were decisively indebted to nineteenth-century German literature and thought (2015), the field might strike one as well-trodden terrain. A return to the category of “the transatlantic,” however, conceived both as lens for and scale of analysis, raises questions that could not be more current in light of recent methodological debates: about the extent to which German studies relies on some concept of nationhood, however belated, for its disciplinary self-definition1; about the viability of different antinational frameworks for the rewriting of literary histories; about the extent to which the traditionally European philologies (Germanic, Slavic, Romance) that still define institutional departments remain intelligible in light of world literature and an increased focus on globalized scales of literary comparison and historicization (Damrosch 2003). The transatlantic as a dual-purpose lens and scale finds itself situated above the smaller-scale framework of a nationally or linguistically circumscribable literary historiography while at the same time being below that of a globally expansive world literature that would investigate how, as David Damrosch puts it, literature “gains in translation” in its displacements and recirculation from national to global contexts (281).

For scholars working in English departments, the transatlantic can often simply mean the investigation of cultural transfers between American and English literatures.2 Within Anglo-American cultural studies and history more broadly, however, the term takes on a range of rich connotations, suggesting above all the theorization of cultural transmission across diasporic routes of economic exchange and (often forced) migration, i.e. the slave trade and the various intercultural synergies it enabled.3 From this disciplinary perspective, the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons generated a series of relays that constitute a coherent, yet internally heterogenous cultural space framed by four—not simply two—continents: Europe and North America, but also, especially, Africa and Latin America.4 From the disciplinary perspective of political scientists, however, the transatlantic is associated less with the slave trade and more with a geopolitical constellation: the post-WWII Cold-War-era transatlantic alliance between West Germany (and Western Europe more broadly) and the United States. Foundations such as the Atlantik Brücke, founded in 1952, continue to fund scholarship and exchange aimed at keeping this geopolitical collaboration alive, for example the annual German-American conference at the Harvard Kennedy School. Scholarship on transatlantic German studies has, on the whole, been far more influenced by the second, post-war concept of the transatlantic than by the first, more global nineteenth-century one. A general reckoning with Germany’s own colonial past and the nascent interest in Black German studies are both disciplinary developments that promise to diversify the framework of the transatlantic by drawing attention to the internal heterogeneity of both poles of cultural exchange, i.e. the various constituencies that make up the U.S. as well as German-speaking countries.

At the same time, however, a focus on the supranational frame of the transatlantic aims to destabilize such seemingly coherent national literary histories in the first place, attending instead to how, say, what is deemed a national canonical work may in fact emerge within the interstice of cross-cultural negotiations and interlinguistic exchanges that cannot be neatly ascribed to one or another homogenous tradition. Although such a tradition might be “nationalizable” in retrospect (as Dimock 2006 has shown). It is precisely this ambivalence that is the starting point of this issue of the Monatshefte.

Building on these fundamental considerations, the methodological and historical perspective can be sharpened. The approach of cultural transfer research, developed in the 1980s by Michel Espagne and Michael Werner, not only aims to counteract the usual limitations of traditional research on ‘influences:’ Above all, it opposes the “conceit of Eurocentrism”, its “notion of a […] cultural gap” between West and East, Occident and Orient, Old World and New World, which has not been completely eradicated to this day.5 Setting such problematic framings aside, proponents of cultural transfer research instead ask much more soberly “why one culture appropriates elements of another culture while adapting them to its own needs” and “what interests have fueled the selective interest in the Other” (Middell 54). A similar view, albeit against a somewhat different theoretical background, has been adopted by the American Germanist Paul Michael Lützeler, who specifically refers to American-German cultural interdependencies. In his view, the objective of transatlantic literary research must not be the study of “cultural syntheses,” but of “reciprocal cultural influences, while maintaining complementarity, competition, and antagonism between the clashing components with their inherent logics” (Lützeler IX).

Given such emphases on the selective interests fueling cultural transfers as well as the potential for competition and antagonism within cases of cultural influence, this collection of essays does not aim to elaborate any putative outstanding importance of European or even German culture for the intellectual and literary realm of the United States. Rather, German and American literature should be viewed as equal senders and receivers, as starting points and destinations of intellectual and literary exchange in a fruitful, productive relationship characterized by reciprocity and inner tension—including but not limited to the aforementioned growing disciplinary reservation against consistent national ideas. The contributions in this issue revolve around processes of cultural adaptation and transformation, relays that run not just from one side of the Atlantic to the other, but bilaterally in both directions, each case spurred by historically specific appropriative interests and culturally local drivers.

A skeptic might conceivably object to this transatlantic constellation of research themes: can one truly speak of a cultural transfer in the narrow sense, given that such transatlantic cases are situated in the internal space of the West? The objection is less obvious than one might at first think and, moreover, testifies to an historically insensitive view: After all, before the end of the 19th century there was neither the concept nor the ideal image of ‘the West,’ understood in the sense of a transatlantic model of civilization: “To speak of the West,” Jürgen Osterhammel reasons, “presupposes that Europeans and North Americans rank equally in global culture and politics. Such symmetry was not assured in European eyes until the turn of the twentieth century.” (86) (Nor, we might add, did either symmetry or asymmetry acknowledge the heterogeneity of Europe or North America.) In other words, rather than taking the cultural matrix of ‘the West’ for granted as a common contextual space for relating German and American literatures, the model of unique transatlantic cultural transfers allows us to elucidate the concrete historical relays of appropriation and agonistic influence that first constitute that cultural space in the first place, thereby defamiliarizing it as an historical achievement rather than a given.

To give just two examples of this long-lasting unfamiliarity: The Transcendentalists, among them most famously Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, encountered German literature as something largely new, even unknown. Theodore Parker’s essay on German literature, published in 1841 in the first volume of the leading transcendentalist journal The Dial, has the character of a basic introduction; it is about “the fairest, the richest, the most original, fresh and religious literature of all modern times” (320). This interest can be explained politically: Newly discovered German literary culture soon became an important point of orientation for the invention of an American national identity that began after the British-American War of 1812 (Müller-Vollmer).

On the German side, more than eight decades later, Thomas Mann took a detour via German Romanticism, namely via Novalis' idea of a plural self, to introduce Walt Whitman’s emphatic notion of democracy to his national-minded German audience. In his view, this was necessary against the backdrop of a widespread image of America simultaneously characterized by great strangeness and sharp resentment: in the Weimar Republic, “America” was a battle cry that conservative circles associated with everything that was to be rejected about modernity, from urbanization to capitalism to democracy. Seen in this light, the recourse to Novalis and German Romanticism in Mann’s 1922 speech, On the German Republic, constitutes a rhetorical maneuver with which he veils how far he had actually progressed on his intellectual and political way to the democratic West.

These two punctual observations6 alone illustrate how inappropriate it would be, at least in historical terms, to make a blanket assumption of cultural homogeneity between Europe and the United States. This assumption has probably changed only superficially to this day, despite the much-vaunted ‘Westernization’ and ‘Americanization’ of European and German culture after 1945. “There has always been a latent antagonism between Europe and America,” as Susan Sontag pointed out in 2003, “one at least as complex and ambivalent as that between parent and child” (7). In all this, of course, we do not want to give the impression that literary transfer between the United States and Germany should be considered exclusive. Focusing on the bilateral relationships between American and German literature does not mean relativizing the multilateral references to other non-European or -North-American literatures. On the contrary, a broad and interdisciplinary connectivity emerges from it.7

In this special issue, transatlantic literary history is characterized primarily as a phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and thus of the modern era. But this rough historical classification can be further differentiated, with provisional acceptance of possible exceptions, such as the German baroque poet and emigrant Francis Daniel Pastorius.8 While an increased relevance of German literature in the United States is particularly evident during the decades of the early and mid-nineteenth century, conversely, a dominance of literary influences from the United States to Germany can be noted for the period around 1900 (with its intensified tendencies toward modernization) and for the decades after 1945 (with their demand for literary internationalization). A pattern of cultural ‘re-entry’ (of the German into the American, the American back into the German) is thus not merely evident at the level of individual authors and works but is crucial to transatlantic literary history as a whole.

While this historical periodization allows one to categorize specific incidents in transatlantic literary history, this special issue also features two case studies that complicate it. The transatlantic case of W.E.B. Du Bois’s conceptualization of double consciousness is an example of a “mediator[] situated in the target culture who temporarily went to Germany to gather first-hand cultural experience” (Müller-Vollmer 12) in the late 19th century. Ellwood Wiggins, in turning towards this case, tests the study of transatlantic literary relationships by taking an analogizing approach: he acknowledges the previously studied influences that Du Bois’s stay in Germany had on his thought, particularly his reading of Schiller, which has not yet been connected with his concept of double consciousness. By rearticulating double consciousness in terms of Schiller’s own schematics, Wiggins’s article, “The Tragic Idealism of Double Consciousness: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk and Friedrich Schiller’s Naive and Sentimental Poetry,” teases out levels of meaning and mutual illumination between the authors that were previously underappreciated.

Eva Tanita Kraaz’s case study “With ‘Pirate Jenny’ from Schiffbauerdamm to Carnegie Hall: Nina Simone’s making of a Protest Song in 1964” acknowledges American cultural eminence in the Weimar Republic by recognizing Brecht and Weill’s fondness for the genre of the song and its afterlife in a transatlantic history characterized by reciprocity. By tracing a case of cultural transfer—the concrete textual changes made to translations as well as individual historical mediators—this article reconstructs a surprising example of how a German cultural artefact was adapted and adopted into the artistic repertoire of the Civil Rights Movement. Such unorthodox appropriation and radicalization required an unlikely constellation of transatlantic writers, composers, translators, and interpreters in order to make the transfer possible in the first place.

In the spirit of Paul Gilroy’s seminal study of the Black Atlantic, the fictional pirate ship Jenny commands in Brecht’s song, which lays an entire town to waste in the process of liberating her from the malaise of rote labor, undergoes imaginative transformation into a kind of mutinous slave ship in Nina Simone’s performative appropriation. The subject matter of the Black Atlantic and, especially, the Black American struggle for freedom connects the two contributions discussed thus far. This focus is of course not accidental. As mentioned before, the twofold discipline of US-American German Studies and Germanistik located in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland is increasingly aware of German entanglements in and responsibilities for colonial and postcolonial history. Needless to say, this colonial past also makes up a crucial part of the transatlantic literary network. With its specific focus, this issue leaves out prominent instances of Black American and German cultural interconnections. For example, Priscilla Layne’s work studies the postwar period’s appropriation Black American popular culture in Germany, while Tiffany Florvil focuses on the transnational feminist solidarities between Black German and US-American women. Additionally, other works illustrate new reciprocal interconnections, for instance with regard to W.E.B. Du Bois’s transatlantic concept of double consciousness, which is not only picked up by the Black German Movement, but is also meticulously studied in connection with it, especially in Natasha A. Kelly’s Afrokultur. The two articles relevant to Black German studies featured in this issue merely indicate the variety of different angles from which this subject can be approached. They demonstrate not only the significance of a paradigmatic shift within transatlantic German studies towards a postcolonial awareness, but also the manifold insights that can be spotted by turning towards these texts and constellations.

This of course does not mean that well-established comparatist perspectives on transnational phenomena should somehow be suspended. In his article in this issue, “Empire, Mass Manufacture, and Craft on Display: The German Book Pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876,” Vance Byrd approaches transatlantic literary history from the perspective of the material book and book industry. The historical event of the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine in Philadelphia in 1876 with its various national book pavilions serves as a pivotal point of comparison that set different book cultures and politics of the late 19th century together in a synchronic transnational setting. After analyzing reviews on the different national exhibition strategies, Byrd concludes that with its tendency to accentuate aesthetics and craftsmanship over sophisticated industrial mass production, while at the same time making the actual books more accessible than any other pavilion by exhibiting them on tables for everyone to touch and read rather than in glass showcases, the German strategy was to present itself as a “cultured nation.” This approach, as well as the focus on studying the historical book industry and the often economically driven mediation of literature in the 19th century, foreshadows the contributions of Corinna Norrick-Rühl and Tobias Boes, since they also emphasize the role of materiality and its implications, already foreseen by Joseph Rezek as a crucial turn within transatlantic studies (794).

With Corinna Norrik-Rühl’s “Disentangling the Economies: A Book Studies Perspective on German Literature in Translation in the US Market,” this issue comes to the temporal near present of transatlantic cultural exchange. She examines the influence of economic pressure within cultural exchange by applying methodology that originates in Book Studies. Following Ann Steiner’s approach, Norrick-Rühl zooms in on two different scales of transfer, the individual title and the market structure. She also examines media attention to the translation of German books for the US-American market. By showing how the focus on ‘big books’ that are also thematically promising, such as Dörte Hansen’s Altes Land (This House is Mine, translated by Ann Stokes), is not a guarantor of wide success in the United States, she teases out the growing economic difficulties of the market, which is additionally hampered by problems like reinforced language hegemonies. The German Book Prize shows a moderately successful attempt at generating international media attention and response to this tendency. Norrick-Rühl’s analysis inevitably raises questions related to the making and writing of future transatlantic history, about the extent to which socioeconomic forces exogenous to the inner logic of literary history nonetheless exert a shaping influence on its arc of development and the kinds of intercultural, interlinguistic influence that are economically facilitated (and those that are not).

The contribution of Tobias Boes, “Transatlantic Literary Studies and the Archive,” identifies an archival turn in transatlantic literary history, while raising awareness for the limitations that the Anthropocene may pose for this specific endeavor. He therefore begins by studying the notion of the transatlantic archive and later on turns to the archive itself through three examples—the Humboldt papers; the Horner, a collection of German-American pamphlets, manuscripts and rare print materials; and the Thomas Mann Papers. Through these, Boes elaborates on the three models of transatlantic studies articulated by Rezek: 1) a focus on “transatlantic modernity,” which always already entails (post)colonialism; 2) the aim to undermine “merely self-referential national literary histories” (793), in particular the category of ‘literature in English’ that weds the study of American and British literatures; and 3) the study of local cultures at the historico-geographic intersection of transatlantic cultural relays (794). Boes suggests at the same time the potential for further theoretical work. While stating the significance of metadata in analyzing the dispersed nature of transatlantic archival study, he addresses an inconvenient matter, namely the environmental impact we as scholars will be held responsible for when conducting research with CO2-intensive transatlantic archives.

The five articles that make up this issue of Monatshefte therefore return to the transatlantic in particular by attending to what might be termed the material infrastructures that support concrete cases of transatlantic literary influence and communication as well as its disciplinary study. This is no coincidence, for gradually shifting away from a model of literary historiography conceptually governed by the nation state to one epistemically organized around the space of the transatlantic requires thinking through the social, economic, and material ‘embeddedness’ of cultural transfers and textual circulations. Above all, this perspectival shift brings into view how even supposedly stable national literary traditions are surreptitiously consolidated and renegotiated in transnational spaces of exchange that are all too easy to ignore in retrospect. Far from a geographically or historically stable category, the transatlantic, as a heuristic, enacts a displacement of focus from the canonized centers of literary history to the more marginal, frayed edges of those very centers as they entered into open-ended circulation and encounter with other cultural mediators, transmissions, translations, and appropriations. Acknowledging the privilege and responsibilities of studying and researching the transatlantic literary history between Germany and the United States, this issue—which compiles articles on the preliminary essays previously published on the blog Transatlantic Literary History: Notes, Essays, Conversations—is an attempt to assemble its recent, significant approaches, to display intriguing cases, and to reveal potential pathways for the future.


  • 1 See the much-discussed article by Norberg (2018).

  • 2 The following remarks follow Joseph Rezek’s (2014) three models of transatlantic studies but takes a view more focused on their specific relevance for German studies.

  • 3 Gilroy (1993) remains seminal for this kind of investigation.

  • 4 For more in this vein, see: Lowe 2015.

  • 5 We refer here to the differentiated reconstruction of the approach of Matthias Middell (53); our translation.

  • 6 For more details see Sina 2019.

  • 7 For further contextualization, see Sina 2022. Parts of this introduction (specifically, section 2) are based on this essay, which has been published only in German.

  • 8 For a study dedicated to this constellation see Hombrecher 2023 (forthcoming).

Works Cited